The Yakuza refers to a collection of Japanese gangs whose behaviors vary from family to family. Some of these organized crime syndicates capitalize off of ritualistic blackmail while others prefer to smuggle arms and drugs in and out of other countries. The darkest crimes that Yakuza are known for are centered around human trafficking and coerced adult entertainment. Some accounts record Yakuza as running the adult film industry in Japan, but with their prominent placement in the Japanese and worldwide media, Yakuza are also known for their humanitarian efforts.
Despite being vagrant criminals and a scourge on society to most police officers Yakuza have been known to aid the Japanese people in times of crisis like the earthquakes of 2011 and 1995. This is why Yakuza prefer to call themselves a “chivalrous organization” over a “violent group” as they’ve been labeled by the Japanese police force.
It is also common for Yakuza to be kind, even extra friendly, to tourists in order to continue building this good faith with local police and government. The dark underworld of Japan is a culture of family, respect, and crime. You may find it interesting to learn that the gang was formed by a bunch of misfits who didn’t have a family of their own. Like most gangs it is the promise of connecting like a family that brings members in and the power often keeps them tied to the gang until the day that they die.
15. Yakuza Are The Largest Criminal Gang in the World
Three years ago the Yakuza were reported to have 70,000 members who are involved in serious criminal activities. In this same year as the reported census the Treasury Department went after Inagawa-kai for operating on behalf of the Yakuza, this was the third largest organization of the Yakuza at the time. This attempt was in hopes of dismantling the huge Japan-based criminal syndicate, but the membership has since grown over 100,000 by many reports. There are multiple families within the Yakuza system who all operate their own pyramids of crime in the organization. The four largest syndicates or families are called Yamaguchi-Gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai, Inagawa-kai, and Aizu Kotetsu-kai. The particularly harmful Yakuza groups are referred to as bor yok dan by police. They are also regarded as a semi-legitimate organization that provides relief in times of need across their home country of Japan. The exact criminal activity that each family partakes in depends on each individual leader.
14. Their Name Comes From a Card Game
Traditional Japanese card game Oicho-Kabu is very similar to the American game called Baccarat. Generally, the game is played with kabufuda decks and can sometimes be played with the hanafuda deck. Oicho-kabu means 8-9 in English and Japanese kabufuda names for the numbers one through ten are used. There are various rules that all revolve around trying to beat the dealer, much like Baccarat, as mentioned.
The worst hand to be dealt in this game is the combination of an eight, a nine, and a three. Phonetically this number is expressed as ya-ku-za, and obviously, is thought to be the origins of the names that Japanese gangsters Yakuza have given themselves.
This is probably a coy reference to the fact that gambling with the Yakuza will definitely get us the worst hand possible. The Yakuza got their start from the combination of bakuto and tekiya, essentially gambling and gambling houses that led to blackmail and even murder.
13. Membership Soared After WWII
The Yakuza was first founded in 1915 by Yamaguchi Harukichi, this conglomerate is called the Yamaguchi-Gumi. However, it wasn’t until after World War II that the Yakuza fully aggrandized with the help of Kazuo Taoka. It wasn’t until after the war that the Yakuza organized and began supporting the top post-war singers and talent. They eventually moved into construction, real estate, and engaging in extortion, fraud, and blackmail. After tackling all of these areas of business the Yakuza began infiltrating the political world, arguably becoming the most powerful gang in the world. The many factions of this gang do partake in illegal activities but they’re also prominent businessmen in legitimate enterprise. It wasn’t until after World War II that the Yakuza began their hoodlum mentality, before that they were simply gamblers. This war helped to shape gang life in Japan starting with the Yakuza, political parties, and the military regime.
12. Yakuza Love Sumo Wrestling
There are almost always rumors in the sumo wrestling world about fixed matches and many times these rumors come back to the Yakuza. On July 4, 2010, the Japanese Sumo Association dismissed the ozekiKotomitsuko as well as stablemaster Otake, a former Takatoriki, for using a gambling ring run by Yakuza to bet on wrestling.
As a part of this same scandal, two stable masters were demoted and a total of 18 wrestlers were banned from the July 2010 tournament. Just two months before this announcement was made prominent Yakuza group Yamaguchi-Gumi bought 50 seats to the tournament that would be well viewed on camera. To deny the alleged ties between the gang and sumo wrestling the Yakuza said that they did this to please an incarcerated boss, and not because they had rigged the matches.
11. Yubizume Punishment
This brutal form of Yakuza punishment is also called “finger shortening” and it is a Japanese ritual is a way for a gangster to atone for any offenses. It can also serve as a sincere apology and essentially is a practice of amputating a portion of one’s little finger. Some also refer to it as “finger flying” which translates to yubi o tobasu. It is believed to have origins in ancient gambling culture when a patron didn’t have the money to pay off their debt. The hacked off part of their little finger was taken as a form of payment and also worked as a mark of shame. Traditionally the hand is placed on a white cloth and lays the hand facing down. A portion of the little finger on the left hand is chopped off and then wrapped in the cloth and given to the individual that deserves redemption.
10. Yoshio Kodama
As the most famous behind-the-scenes power broker of the 20th century, Kodama was active in Japan’s political arena as well as the political underworld. Kodama was a prominent figure in the rise of Japanese organized crime in the form of the Yakuza. The Yakuza boss created a network of allies during the war to move supplies for the Japanese war effort from continental Asia into Japan. Around this same time, Kodama grew ties in the Japanese drug trade, specifically Opium. This drug trade on the back of a government-sponsored war effort made Kodama the richest man in Asia at the time. After the war, the United States arrested him as a suspected Class A war criminal. Kodama used most of his power in the ‘40s to suppress any communist or anti-nationalist propaganda or uprising, this marked one of the first Yakuza interventions in political Japan. He also ordered a Yakuza faction to break up a labor movement at the Hokutan coal mine. Kodama supported the right-wing, anti-communist Liberal Democratic Party and used all of his power to ensure a right wing government ruled Japan.
9. 1976 Lockheed Scandal
The Lockheed Scandal is the name given to a series of bribes from West Germany to Japan made by the Lockheed airline company. The airline company hired Yoshio Kodama as a consultant that was meant to use his Yakuza power to influence Japanese parastatal airlines to buy their planes. By February of 1976 vice-chairman of Lockheed reported to a senate subcommittee that they had paid approximately $3 million in bribes to the Prime Minister of Japan Kakuei Tanaka. This huge scandal blew up and even incited terrorist attacks on the Kyoto home of Yoshio Kodama by a famous actor. The Lockheed airline company paid out billions of dollars in bribes to prominent Japanese figures. Other scandals came out in West Germany, Saudi Arabia, Italy, and the Netherlands. In the aftermath of the scandal, the chairman of the board, vice chairman, and president of Lockheed all resigned from their positions. The scandal also inspired Jimmy Carter to form the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
8. Kazuo Taoka
Kazuo Taoka is one of the most prominent Yakuza godfathers, so prominent that he is often called the “Godfather of Godfathers”. Taoka was the third kumicho of the Yamaguchi-Gumi which is Japan’s largest Yakuza organization. Considering that Taoka grew up as an orphan and street fighter training under Kobe it is not a surprise but an honor that he grew so prominent in the Yakuza organization. During his fighting days, the signature attack of Kazuo Taoka was scratching out his opponent’s eyes, a feat that earned him the nickname “The Bear”. After spending some time incarcerated Taoka held a ceremony at his home which united the Yamaguchi-Gumi and Inagawa-Kai. This earned him the positive Yakuza attention that was necessary to put a Godfather in place. Six years after this reconciliation Taoka survived an assassination attempt when he was shot in the back of the neck by a member of Matsuda-Gumi. He led the Yakuza through the Yamaguchi-Gumi until the day that he died from a heart attack in 1981.
The Yakuza have been involved in the sex trafficking trade since World War II when they would procure “comfort women” for soldiers. The sex trade continued to expand in the ’70s and ’80s following the free love movement of the 1960’s. Yakuza saw Japanese men planning sex vacations in other countries and wanted to capitalize on that money. The Yakuza sex trade first appeared in Korea and Taiwan in the 1960’s before expansion to the Philippines and Thailand the next decade. The Yakuza did not actually run these operations but instead paid off local gangsters to go to villages rousting farmers to sell their daughters into the sex trade. After protests in the 1980’s made sex trade illegal in Japan Yakuza focused on bringing in foreign sex workers to please Japanese men who didn’t want to risk going over state lines. Despite the dangers, Japanese men continue to go over to neighboring countries in order to have sex with children.
This specialized form of racketeering is unique to Japan and can be translated directly to mean corporate bouncers, corporate blackmailers, or meeting-men. The practice originated in the early 19th century when rumor and scandal could destroy a corporation, specifically the president and CEOs of those corporations. Yakuza members thrive off of the practice of Sokaiya despite any laws that come into place because Japanese culture so heavily promotes shaming and shunning. Yakuza members will buy enough stock to sit on the board of directors at a large company and then slowly use their position to learn information about their fellow board members. Yakuza will disrupt shareholder meetings, hinder freedom of speech, and extort billions of dollars from the wealthy and powerful in Japan in return for silence regarding each individual’s embarrassing secrets. Sokaiya has not only given Yakuza power over Japan’s most powerful, their tactics have place Yakuza members on some of the most powerful political and media boards in Japan.
5. Their Role In The “Entertainment Industry”
Although Yakuza control the media enough to stifle a lot of the more gruesome crimes in which they partake, there is still some proof of drug trafficking, sex trafficking, and even forced adult entertainment. Rumors nowadays have implied that Yakuza are dabbling in adult content that involves children, which is obviously one of the darkest places that the organized Japanese gang has traveled yet. One opinion piece from an insider states that the Yakuza are heavily involved in the current Japanese industry. Many producers in Japan attempt to trap women into being adult film stars by first luring them to a call back on a regular film. When they arrive they are blackmailed into staying in the industry making up to 100 videos in just one year. Despite these horrific crimes, there are still tons of stories about how Yakuza are super friendly to tourists, although it is a different story for small business owners who happen to be on their turf.
4. The Gang Responded More Quickly to the Tsunami than the Government
On March 11, 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan leaving 27,000 dead and missing. They sent trucks filled with blankets, food, water, and other supplies to Kobe and Tokyo where disaster relief centers had been set up. They did the same in the 1995 Kobe earthquake where the government was blocked from reaching certain places. To deliver relief Yakuza acted almost immediately, oftentimes being the first there to help. Some view Yakuza as a group of societal dropouts who are just looking to help others rise above their circumstances, while some see the relief aide as a way to please police since the gang is also responsible for terrible human rights violations and crime. In 2011 the gangsters dispatched out over 70 trucks allotting to around $500,000 in donations. Whether it is a PR stunt or true good intentions the actions really helped people, so no harm was done in this regard.
3. Yakuza In The United States
Rumors have been spreading about a newly emerging Yakuza presence in the United States of America. They actually own 80% of the skyscrapers in Chicago, are major stockholders in America’s largest bank, and are well-known drug trafficking into America. Yakuza are also said to control the prostitution on the entire West Coast while operating covert firms, properties, and American allies. Some believe that there are more Yakuza in the United States than Italian and Sicilian mafia. This entry into America started with a 1984 investment in the Continental Illinois Corporation which is a holding firm for the Continental Bank of Chicago. It is even rumored that the popular teppan style Japanese restaurant chain is owned by a member of the Yakuza. They are heavily involved with the restaurant and supply business and were even connected to blackmail in the case of Hollywood madame Heidi Fleiss, who infamously ran a prostitution ring.
2. Gun Trafficking
Japan has some of the most strict gun laws in the world, owning or selling one is nearly illegal and purchasing a gun is almost impossible. These laws haven’t just made it hard to have a gun, it means that only law enforcement and Yakuza have guns. Firearm Control Laws actually create a space where police officers can arrest any Yakuza member caught with a firearm, they will get up to seven years in prison. Yakuza are terrified of these laws and have stopped carrying as many firearms as they did before the government imposed these laws. It is probably the scariest thing that so few people can actually report on these scandals without being shut down. The only American reporter to write for a Japanese newspaper actually lives under police protection in Japan’s urban hub of Tokyo. This just shows their ability to silence the media and completely control their image.
1. Politicians and Yakuza Go Hand in Hand
As mentioned a few of the most well-known Yakuza bosses have capitalized on their criminal power by getting involved in the political realm of Japan. Back when Yakuza first rose to power they were able to flex their ‘muscles’ on the Japanese people more freely but in the mid-’80s the Japanese government put laws in place to battle the Yakuza’s power over the nation. These laws caused bloody gang wars from Yakuza searching out new territories and might have done more harm than good.
In 2012 Japan’s justice minister resigned over rumored ties to the Yakuza. Minister Tanaka had ties to the powerful Inagawa-kai, one of three main families in the organized crime syndicate. It is alleged that Tanaka had long been under the thumb of Yakuza mafia and had openly participated in many documented Inagawa-kai events. This is one of the few Yakuza political stories that still remains in the news today.